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U.S. Workers Need Paid Leave

New America Media, Commentary, Heather Boushey Posted: Jun 24, 2009

Editor's Note: Unlike many other developed nations, the United States does not mandate that employers offer paid time off for workers, a situation that can be corrected with little or no additional cost to employers, writes Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress.

Workers in the United States, unlike those from nearly every other nation, do not have the right to receive paid leave when they have a child, when they are ill or when they have to take care of a relative who is sick. Whats more, the United States stands alone among developed economies in not providing paid time off for workers.

Today, most U.S. families no longer have a stay-at-home parent. In the typical household, parents or one parent in single-parent families are in the labor force. This means that when a child comes into the family, or when a family member becomes ill and needs someone to help them, there is no one available to provide that care. Someone needs to take time off work.

Some workers under the Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, are guaranteed up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year if they have been employed for 12 months by companies that employ 50 or more workers, but more than 4 out of 10 workers are not covered. Recent statistics show that approximately 43.3 percent of women, 48 percent of blacks and 31.5 percent of Hispanics between the ages of 18 to 25 who hold a job and have a young child at home do not qualify to receive unpaid leave. Further, given the current economic downturn, many workersparticularly low wage earners, minorities and young parents cannot afford to take unpaid leave.

This has enormous implications for immigrant women. A recent poll released by New America Media shows that they only average $500 a month in their first job and a significant proportion of them including 40 percent of Hispanics dont have health insurance. The study revealed that a majority of immigrant women from China, Korea, the Philippines, India, Africa and Arabic countries described their last job in their home country as professional, yet a substantial percentage have not found comparable employment in the United States.

For example, almost 70 percent of Korean, Arabic and African women reported having had professional jobs in their home country; however, those percentages in the United States drop to 25, 27 and 46 percent, respectively. Most of them reported currently being employed as hotel maids, restaurant waitresses, factory technicians, house cleaners, and textile workers jobs that are among the least likely to provide any benefits, let alone paid time off if a worker is ill or needs to care for a family member.

A recent proposal by the Center for American Progress seeks to correct this disparity and transform the current FMLA into a paid family medical leave program that would require relatively little in additional funding and resources. The proposal would provide nearly every U.S. worker with up to 12 weeks of wage replacement when they need time off to care for a new child by birth or adoption care for themselves if they become seriously ill, or to care for a seriously ill family member. Low-wage and part-time workers would qualify for the benefit, alongside higher-wage workers.

But opponents of paid family and medical leave, mainly led by business groups, argue that paying for family and medical leave would add an extra financial burden to already burdened employers and would reduce U.S. competitiveness. However, under closer inspection, these arguments dont hold water. Many other nations provide these benefits and have found that it helps retain valuable employees and improves the bottom line.

The Obama Administration and Congress need to guarantee all workers the right to job-protected family and medical leave. A good place to start would be to move ahead on the debate over providing paid parental leave to federal employees to demonstrate to the private sector that this is not only good for workers and their families, but it is also good for business. The Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act, which recently passed the House, would provide paid parental leave for federal employees. The Obama Administration has indicated that it supports such legislation.

Ensuring paid family and medical leave for all workers is good for our families, our health and for business. It is time that we follow the lead of every other industrialized nation and provide our workers peace of mind.

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